Dinner Won’t Do It

Since the election President Obama has received a wide range of unsolicited advice regarding his legislative relations as they pertain to his second term agenda and, most immediately, avoiding a plunge over the fiscal cliff. A fair number of the comments, in an echo of the pre-election punditry that ultimately led to Nate Silver selling three billion new books, suggest that the key to legislative success is not really policy, but personality. If only Obama were a warmer person, a better schmoozer or for that matter a better golfer, Congress would follow his lead and come to a deal. Much of this should involve hospitality, and better yet, food.

Bill Keller, for instance, argues in favor of “conciliatory outreach and a few rounds of golf with the majority leader”: “Obama knows his only route to the large legacy he craves leads through the more temperate Republicans, and he knows (as a man who voraciously consumes his press reviews) that winning votes requires something he has neglected, working the room. It requires old-fashioned schmoozing and flattery and favors, accompanied by high-minded appeals to the public.”

Over the weekend, Maureen Dowd suggested that Obama learn “some leadership lessons”—from Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III of all people. After all, RG III is a team player (on a losing team, but still…); by contrast, “Obama gets tangled up in his head — trying to decide if he’s too noble to play politics or if spending some evenings schmoozing with pols and flattering them to further his agenda will leave him too depleted…” (This has been a Dowd theme for a while. In early November she decided Obama was an introvert and approvingly quoted the Center for American Progress’s Neera Tanden as saying “it’s stunning that [Obama’s] in politics, because he really doesn’t like people.”)

She goes on to note that “a Democratic senator recently told me: ‘If only the president would have us over to the White House sometimes and talk to us, it could really help. When Bill Clinton called and asked if he could have my vote, I was more prone to do it because we had developed a rapport.’”

This morning, Jon Meacham piled on the ‘rapport’ bandwagon, drawing on his new biography of Thomas Jefferson to push for Obama to revive Jefferson’s “constant campaign of using his social hours — and particularly his dinner table — as a way of making the rougher edges of politics smooth.” Meacham notes that “Jefferson’s dinner campaigns were intensely practical. He believed in constant conversation between the president and lawmakers, for ‘if the members are to know nothing but what is important enough to be put in a public message,’ Jefferson wrote, ‘it becomes a government of chance and not of design.’”

It is worth noting, as regards Jefferson, that James Sterling Young’s careful 1966 history of the era, The Washington Community 1800-1828 is more circumspect. Young endorses Jefferson’s culinary efforts (and the excellent imported wine he served). But he stresses that Jefferson did not hold bipartisan dinners, inviting opposition Federalists and his own Democratic-Republicans separately – after all a big part of his idea was to “cultivate a sense of comity among his partisans on the Hill” (p. 169). Further, it is not clear whether these events ‘worked’ beyond impressing legislators with Jefferson’s own brilliance. Young concludes that “based more upon the efforts Jefferson made to lead than upon legislative results, and relying largely upon the often colored testimony of contemporary legislators, most studies tend, too, to overstate Jefferson’s influence” (p. 179).

Now, rapport is a good thing; so is dinner; so is French wine. No one would argue that political niceties do not make a difference – at the margins. But, as political scientists (to name a few: Jon Bond, George Edwards, Richard Fleisher, Paul Light, Mark Peterson, Steve Shull…) showed in a flurry of work starting some two decades ago, Young was right: presidential political skills are themselves a marginal factor in achieving legislative success. Structural matters, such as the partisan makeup of Congress and the constraints imposed by the distribution of public opinion, matter far more than presidential charm. Presidents do have some control over how they react to those structural features – for instance, in the agenda they select and how they frame it. They need to be careful of what Edwards calls “overreach”, which he argues undermined Obama’s first term; and they are better off avoiding a centralized legislative formulation process that privileges political point-scoring over wider, substantive input.

Obama himself does seem to understand the broad outlines here. When Time’s Fareed Zakaria suggested to Obama in early 2012 that his legislative difficulties stemmed from being “cool and aloof” and thus unable to form a relationship with Speaker Boehner, the president retorted:

“You know, the truth is, actually, when it comes to Congress, the issue is not personal relationships….In terms of Congress, the reason we’re not getting enough done right now is because you’ve got a Congress that is deeply ideological and sees a political advantage in not getting stuff done. And I—John Boehner and I get along fine. We had a great time playing golf together. That’s not the issue. The problem was that no matter how much golf we played or no matter how much we yukked it up, he had trouble getting his caucus to go along with doing the responsible thing on a whole bunch of issues over the past year.”

Maybe the president really has read the literature! he might send it over to the New York Times.

3 Responses to Dinner Won’t Do It

  1. Norm Ornstein November 26, 2012 at 7:09 pm #

    Apropos of this, my piece in the Post from September:
    Why Obama doesn’t need to be more Clintonesque
    By Norman J. Ornstein, Published: September 13

    Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and is most recently the co-author of “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.”

    Bob Woodward’s new book, “The Price of Politics,” makes him the latest in a string of Washington cognoscenti to compare Barack Obama’s personality unfavorably with Bill Clinton’s and to suggest that Obama’s presidency would be more successful if he were less introspective and aloof, more outgoing and more of a schmoozer. Although Woodward and pundits such as The Post’s Richard Cohen [“The solitary executive,” op-ed, Sept. 5] acknowledge the head winds that Obama has faced — an implacable Republican opposition, a surfeit of sulfurous anti-Obama rhetoric, racism sometimes only thinly disguised — they still lament Obama’s failure to return phone calls or to buddy up to business leaders or to have beers with members of Congress, traits that never would have been attached to Clinton.

    The stylistic differences between Obama and Clinton are stark. But the comparison ignores larger realities about both presidencies. The first is how well Clinton’s open and enveloping approach worked to improve his presidential performance. And the answer is . . . not much, if at all.

    From the beginning of his presidency, Clinton was under an all-out assault from Republican leaders and their acolytes and mouthpieces in the conservative media. He was also remarkably accessible to a wide range of allies and adversaries — constantly in contact with a mind-boggling collection of people to get ideas and gauge performance — just the kind of thing that Woodward and Cohen suggest should have a payoff. But Clinton’s engagement did not stop or even temper the attempts to delegitimize him. “Slick Willie” was perhaps the nicest epithet applied to him; the Wall Street Journal editorial page suggested several times that the president might have been an accessory to murder while governor of Arkansas. When Vince Foster wrote in his suicide note about how politics in Washington was a blood sport, he referred to the personal attacks not only on him but also on the president and the first lady.

    Of course, many of those attacks flowed from self-inflicted wounds, but in most cases the Clinton missteps were amplified into huge errors or crimes by the anti-Clinton wind machine, which was not deterred by the president’s warm style.

    At the same time, Clinton tried tirelessly to reach out to Democrats in Congress as well as Republicans. But all of the phone calls, flattery and schmoozing did not stop Republicans in both houses from voting in unison against the Clinton economic plan, and for almost eight months of humiliation and deadlock he did not have enough votes from his own Democrats. When the plan finally passed, by a single vote in each house, it came across as more of a setback than a triumph. And the schmoozing on the health-care plan did not stop Republican Senate leader Bob Dole from blocking action on any compromise reform, nor did it bring together enough Democrats to avoid the devastating defeat of the signature Clinton effort that led to the Republican sweep in the 1994 midterms.

    To be sure, after Clinton’s adroit handling of the ham-handed GOP effort to shut down the government in 1995, Republicans under House Speaker Newt Gingrich dealt with the president differently. They cooperated on welfare reform and on a budget agreement in 1996. But that cooperation had little to do with Clinton’s outgoing style; it was a hard-nosed calculation by Gingrich that cooperating would ensure that Republicans could win a second consecutive majority in the House, even if it damaged Dole’s presidential prospects. And barely a year after the 1996 election, Republicans were hammering the president again, culminating in his impeachment by the House.

    On balance, Clinton was a good and strong president. But — and here is the second reality — it was Obama, in an even more intransigent and tribal era, who got a major health-reform package through a bitterly divided Congress. As Michael Grunwald details in “The New, New Deal,” Obama also managed to enact a major set of substantive policies — including financing the introduction of information technology into the health-care system, expanding broadband and revamping the electrical grid — that had eluded his predecessors. The accomplishments of the 111th Congress rivaled those of the Great Society Congress of Lyndon Johnson’s era. And they were achieved without the midnight phone calls or warm interactions with allies and adversaries that characterized Clinton. To a large extent, they were achieved because Obama gave his leaders in Congress a lot of slack to find majorities (or supermajorities) and intervened only when a push was needed.

    If Obama had been more like Clinton, he might have ameliorated some of the tough rhetoric used against him by many business leaders and nabobs of the financial industry whose businesses, and fortunes, he saved. He might have put more onus on Republican leaders who undercut him at every turn, even before he was inaugurated, to explain their intransigence. Such an approach certainly would have cheered a lot of people who loved those communications with Clinton but who have had none of it with Obama (me among them). But it would not necessarily have made Obama’s presidency less contentious or his accomplishments more robust.

  2. Ray Scheele November 27, 2012 at 10:07 am #

    Norm is correct. The problem is the inability of the Republican congressional leaders to control their own members. The agreements between the Obama and the Speaker fell apart not because the President failed to schmooze enough; they collapsed because Boehner could not get his own caucus to agree. The President and his advisors have pointed this out many times but many observers fail to get it.